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World Perspective | ARMENIA

Staying True to Their Roots

Economic necessity has spurred thousands of young high achievers to move to the West. But the older generation prefers to stay.

April 10, 1998|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YEREVAN, Armenia — When their daughter Anush was born in Soviet Armenia 26 years ago, factory director Karen Nadzharyan and his schoolteacher wife, Nata, expected a settled future for the beautiful, big-eyed baby: a good school career, music training, university, a family and a professional job--all in her hometown.

But then their world turned upside down. Armenia is now independent, although it has suffered war and political convulsions of every sort.

Karen's job vanished in the difficult transition from Soviet communism; like many other elite figures from the past, he now ekes out a precarious living, as a driver. Water comes only sporadically to their apartment; so does money.

Worst of all, Anush has gone to live in America. She is just one of thousands of smart young Armenians to join a massive brain drain away from the chaos and poverty here. Now pursuing a doctorate in math at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Anush has been away since 1993.

"We don't know whether she'll ever come home," Nata said wistfully, looking at the photos of her daughter--thoughtful, lustrous-eyed, smiling in the Midwestern snows--that decorate the threadbare family apartment.

"Anyone who can leave has left," Karen, 56, mused. "We always had a birthday party for Anush, and all her school friends came.

"There were 40 wonderful girls--bright, beautiful, gifted; you should have seen them," he said. "We went on inviting them after she left, in her honor, but every year fewer of them were still here to come. This year, none of them at all were left."

The U.S. is not only home to a powerful Armenian diaspora--made up of people who fled persecution early this century--but also the destination of choice for those looking for a new home.

Everyone in Yerevan, the capital, wants to learn English; many local people have family or friends now living in the U.S., and a surprising number have visited them, producing snapshots of sun-drenched family reunions in California and elsewhere.

Wary of being blamed for a brain drain, Western embassies are cagey about divulging the number of Armenians who are heading for their countries. Because Armenian applications for immigrant visas to the United States are processed not in Yerevan but in Russia, U.S. officials here have no information about how many are granted.

But between 9,000 and 11,000 Armenians apply every year for the non-immigrant visas that the U.S. Embassy here does issue.

U.S. officials suspect that about a third of these people never come back, either because they legally change their visa status once in the United States or because they slip through the immigration network and vanish into the United States.

In an attempt to stop illegal immigration, U.S. officials turn down more temporary visa applications from Armenia than anywhere else in the former Soviet Union--59% of all applications in the first three months of this year.

Economic necessity has pushed young Armenians to leave their homeland. When Anush was an undergraduate in Yerevan, Armenia was plunged into almost complete darkness for two years during an energy blockade by neighboring Azerbaijan.

"I felt so bad for her, studying in our freezing apartment, reading by candlelight, straining her eyes," Nata, her mother, recalled.

Although Armenia now has electricity again, the university and government jobs that graduates might aspire to in this country of 3 million people are poorly paid, with many earning less than $50 a month.

Young high achievers such as Anush, who were only teenagers when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, were among the best placed to reorient themselves.

It was Anush who got night work as a computer programmer, earning more than both her bewildered parents; she was later accepted by both British and American colleges.

Nowadays, it is Anush who pays for her parents to visit her pretty new home in Urbana.

Left behind in this poor but dramatic stone city, built on crags of reddish rock and filled with memorials to bitter Armenian grief over past tragedies, Karen and Nata have no plans to follow their daughter to the United States.

Outside the Nadzharyans' apartment, in the spring sunlight, a market is selling carpets, Turkish chocolate and cigarettes. A ragged old man is playing the mournful music of Armenia on an accordion, and the notes tremble on the dusty air.

"We grew up here. It's our home. It's in our blood--these streets and these houses," Nata said.

"It's here I made my mark on life," she said. "I couldn't leave."

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